Waikiki—a name so glamorized and renowned the world over that we might think we know all there is to know about this stretch of golden beachfront. But Waikiki is a wonderful enigma of a neighborhood, with centuries of history mostly unfamiliar even to longtime residents of the Islands. Moreover, few areas on Oahu are changing more quickly; this is no longer the Waikiki you knew even a decade ago. Each year it becomes even more polished than the last, yet somehow it manages to retain much of its “sandy feet” charm along the way.
History suggests that Hawaiians had settled what is now downtown Honolulu by the 12th century. In the 1500s, the ruling royal family moved its court to coastal Waikiki, which at the time was still pocketed with freshwater springs. In fact, many members of the royal family kept homes in Waikiki into the early 20th century because of its serenity and natural splendor.
A walk down Kalakaua Ave. offers information about historic points of interest and important former residents; look for the many historical “surfboard” signs along Kalakaua Ave. and statues of various royal family members.
Today Waikiki’s boundaries are the tranquil Ala Wai Canal on the west and north, and Kapahulu Ave. on the east, which runs along the Honolulu Zoo and vast Kapiolani Park. Because the neighborhood is long and narrow, residents and visitors are always within a few blocks from the coast.
Waikiki is a particularly sunny, dry and warm region of the island, with an average annual precipitation rate of only 22 inches, an average temperature high in July of 87 degrees and average high in January of 80 degrees. Naturally, the beach is the hub of daytime activity; not only is it a destination for sunning and picnicking, but the gentle waves are ideal for beginner surfers and body boarders as well as snorkelers, standup paddlers and outrigger canoe rides.
This former beachfront village, once a landscape of stone temple mounds, pili-grass huts and coconut trees, has seen many layers of change: the “golden age” of the 1930s, when Hollywood stars and beach boys bronzed on Waikiki Beach before a handful of low-rise luxury resorts; the boomtown of post-statehood and jumbo jet service, when the district took on its dramatic skyline, international appeal and surf-crazy bikini set; and the last two decades, during which Waikiki has re-emerged as some of the most expensive real estate in the U.S., with world-class designer boutiques, brand-new luxury residential towers and hotels, and total renovations of most of its properties, with more right around the corner.
Despite its increasing Fifth Ave. finesse, Waikiki remains Hawaii to its core. It’s perfectly fine to saunter past Gucci in nothing more than a bathing suit; along Kalakaua Ave., street characters keep the evenings lively with original musical and theatrical performances; and near Kapahulu Ave., local folks play chess all day beneath the hau trees, as they always have.
In our upcoming blogs on the new Waikiki, we’ll explore the neighborhood in more depth, including a look at notable condos and how to make the most of living in Honolulu’s most exciting district.
Photos: Stacy Pope; image of Shirley Temple courtesy Hawaii State Archives